Holding science to higher standards when it comes to racism


SShortly before an 18-year-old white supremacist walked into a supermarket in a black Buffalo, NY neighborhood and shot 13 shoppers and employees with an assault rifle bearing a racial epithet, he posted a online rant. Other white nationalist terrorists have done this, but this one was different: it cited a considerable amount of scientific research to support its author’s racist claims and actions.

In the weeks following the mid-May shooting, reporters and scientists debated what to do with the Buffalo terrorist’s references to science. Overwhelmingly, these discussions portray the rant as relying on pseudoscience or discredited science and co-opting or misinterpreting mainstream science.

But this framework does not do enough to hold scientists and scientific institutions accountable for the societal consequences of racist science and scientific racism.


The term “pseudoscience,” as it is used in media descriptions of the Buffalo terrorist’s diatribe, obscures more than it reveals. Science historian Michael Gordin explained that “pseudoscience is not a real thing”. On the contrary, the term “is a negative category, always attributed to someone else’s beliefs, so as not to characterize a doctrine which is dear to us”. The invocation of pseudoscience in reports of the Buffalo shooting serves primarily to alienate science from this horrific massacre, producing the false impression that “real” science cannot be racist.

But the real science box be racist. A century ago, racist science was the norm rather than the exception, and the legacy of scientific racism continues to reverberate through scientific institutions. Granted, some of the research cited by the Buffalo terrorist is outdated and has been discredited, meaning it is no longer widely accepted as valid. The key words here are “no longer” – this research was once regular and acceptable science until other scientists began to question and criticize it.


The discredited science of the Buffalo terrorist rant that the press most often refers to was produced by J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn, psychologists whose research has been heavily supported by the openly racist Pioneer Fund. From the 1980s to the 2010s, these men produced a series of scientific papers and books purporting to demonstrate the biological inferiority of people of African descent, claiming to show that they are naturally less intelligent and more prone to crime and corruption. sexual promiscuity than people of European descent. or of Asian descent.

It is important to note that Rushton and Lynn were not pseudoscientists working in pseudoscience laboratories or institutions. They were full professors, Rushton at the University of Western Ontario until his death in 2012 and Lynn at the University of Ulster until he was finally stripped of his title in 2018. They published in reputable journals, such as the International Journal of Neuroscience and Psychological Science, although they have also published in darker outlets, such as Mankind Quarterly and Personality and Individual Differences. Lynn was a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Intelligence until 2018. Rushton was a Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His work was praised and championed by Edward O. Wilson, one of the most famous biologists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Although much of Rushton and Lynn’s research is now widely recognized as racist trash, it is still available in the journals they originally published in, in print and online, and is unaccompanied by any kind. of warning label. An unwitting student searching Google Scholar for “race and intelligence” could easily come across their work, or a wide variety of similar research, and get no indication that it should not be trusted: it sounds like science because it was – and in many cases. is always — science.

Rushton and Lynn are only the more visible edge of a much larger phenomenon, the majority of which has not been subject to the same scrutiny as these men and their work. Racist science is still regularly published in seemingly reputable scientific venues. One example is Michael Woodley, a scientist whose affiliation with the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was only suspended after a reference to one of his many racist publications appeared in the Buffalo terrorist’s rant, inspiring a petition from an international group of genetic researchers.

Openly racist research is not the only problem. The Buffalo terrorist also cited cutting-edge research in molecular genetics that is not explicitly racist. Most notable is a 2018 meta-analysis published in Nature Genetics that identifies genomic correlates of educational attainment in whites of European genetic ancestry. UCLA’s Daniel Benjamin, co-founder of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which coordinated the study, described himself as “horrified” by the way the Buffalo terrorist used his group’s research. Indeed, their study says little about race other than that the genetic variants that predict the educational level of white Americans do not predict the educational level of black Americans.

To suggest that this study shows some kind of systematic genetic difference between white and black Americans that makes the former innately smarter than the latter is absolutely a misreading that was not intended by the study authors. Such misinterpretation, however, does not just occur in online white nationalist cesspools. Behavioral genetics research has been consistently misinterpreted this way. by scientists since the birth of the field in the 1960s. These scientists include Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, Glayde Whitney and Bo Winegard, all of whom have advanced this erroneous interpretation – dubbed Jensenism – in a deluge of popular books and articles and scientists who continue to be published in reputable media.

For these scientists, Jensenism appears justified by research. If there are genetic variants that make people smarter (the fundamental principle of behavior genetics) and if the genetic variants are distributed differently in different populations (the fundamental principle of population genetics), then the differences between racial groups in terms of intelligence or level of education “must” be rooted in genetic differences.

These basic premises, however, are false. Scientists have not identified any genetic variants that promote intelligence or education, and racial categories do not represent biological populations. To their credit, some behavior geneticists have publicly denounced drawing racist conclusions from their findings. Nevertheless, the scientific papers and books that scientists write to popularize their findings too often oversell research in a way that invites racist misreading, which other scientists are only too willing to provide.

Science is a vitally important social activity, contributing positively to all areas of life. Yet scientists are not always right and their work is not always beneficial. If scientists and scientific institutions are to retain their credibility, they must do a better job of confronting and combating their own racism, and the press must hold them to higher standards.

Emily Klancher Merchant is assistant professor of science and technology studies at the University of California, Davis and author of “Building the Population Bomb” (Oxford University Press, 2021).


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